As a new feature on The Beet, Elysabeth Alfano interviews notable plant-based personalities to bring you stories designed to inform and inspire you on your plant-based journey. Here, she interviewed Dr. Dean Ornish, known as the Father of Lifestyle Medicine, on how adopting a plant-based approach can boost your immune system and help you stay healthy in a time of COVID-19.

Cities around the globe are convulsing, as the need for social justice has knocked the coronavirus pandemic off the front pages. But with the virus still marching on across the southern United States and smaller outbreaks are cropping up like small forest fires in the wake of a massive burn, it's clear the virus is not going away, no matter how much news events overtake it.

So the question is now, how can we best protect ourselves and live a healthy life, given the fact that we are as stressed as ever. Weekly Beet columnist, Elysabeth Alfano, sits down (remotely of course) with Dr. Dean Ornish, one of the foremost leaders in reversing chronic diseases, to talk about the urgency of boosting our immune systems, now and in the months and years ahead.

Respected the world over, Dr. Ornish has proven that genes do not determine your fate. In his practice, he has shown that diet and exercise and stress-relieving lifestyle practices can override any predisposition to heart disease and many other chronic ailments. In fact, dietary changes–specifically a plant-based diet that is low in oil–can even reverse early or advanced stages of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

These same lifestyle changes can also strengthen our immune systems, still the best-known defense against COVID-19, and certainly a way of avoiding the most severe symptoms if you do get infected. According to Ornish, consistently eating a whole food plant-based diet can increase your immunity and reduce the likelihood that we’re going to get sick, now or later in life.

In his book, UnDo It: How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Diseases, written with his wife, Anne Ornish, Dr. Ornish walks us through how making some relatively small changes can, in short, reverse aging and protect us by keeping us strong. The book was recently featured by Oprah on her series, SuperSoul Sunday. She points out that it's easier to make these tweaks than to have to commit to a life of drugs, medical procedures and symptoms.

"Eat more, move more, stress less," says Oprah, summing it up, to which Dr. Ornish adds: Love more. Boom, that's it. His wife concludes: "It's really about self-love."

It’s no wonder that Dr. Ornish was featured as an expert in the movie, The Game Changers.  What athlete, or human, wouldn’t want to age backward? However, we mere mortals aren’t concerned with batting 1000…we just want to be able to leave our houses with a stronger immune system to protect ourselves from Coronavirus and feel as if we can live a healthy life.

Here is Dr. Ornish, on what you can do to boost your immune system now.

EA: “Are your colleagues or other doctors making a connection between eating meat and the pandemic that we’re in right now? Or eating meat or not eating meat and having a stronger immune system?

Dr. Ornish: “Well, unfortunately, most of the efforts have been on avoiding the virus rather than how we can boost our immune system to be more likely to avoid getting sick if we’re exposed to it. Both are important, but most of the effort has gone into the former and I think we need to put more emphasis on the latter: What we eat, how we respond to stress, how much exercise we get, how much love and support we have, how much sleep we get, and whether or not we smoke cigarettes.

“Each of these are important factors that we do have control over, and I think that's important because it’s so easy to feel like, ‘Oh my god, what can I do? I’m a victim. I’m powerless,’ and we’re not powerless.

“It doesn’t mean that you can go out and your immune system is so great that you don’t need to worry about [the virus]. We need to avoid the virus, but it can’t always be completely avoided, and so we also need to do these measures that can enhance our immune function.

“What’s good for your immune system is good for your heart. It’s good for diabetes. It’s good for looking younger. It’s good for just about most of the chronic diseases that I really think are just the same disease manifesting and masquerading in different forms, because they all share the same underlying biological mechanism. Things like, not only your immune function but chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, changes to the microbiome and telemeters and gene expression and androgenesis, and so on.

"Each one of these biological mechanisms is directly influenced, just like our immune function is, by four things:

  • 1) Eating well (plant-based)
  • 2) Moving more
  • 3) Stressing less
  • 4) Loving more

“So, it’s not that you only want to make these changes because of this pandemic that’s out there. These are changes that are worth making because the other pandemic that’s out there is heart disease and diabetes. 80 million people in this country have high blood pressure. 60 million are taking cholesterol-lowering drugs. More people die of heart disease than anything else and yet it’s almost completely preventable if we put into practice what we already know.

“The good news is the same lifestyle changes that can help prevent or even reverse heart disease and diabetes and prostate cancer and other conditions are the same ones that could help boost our immune system, to help ward off the coronavirus as well.”

EA: I love that you say this. I love that it’s so empowering for people. You don’t have to stand in line, you don’t have to go to the doctor, you don’t have to hope that very expensive pills will maybe fix your situation. You can actually fix your situation right here, right now, today. That power is right on your plate and it does so many things. It’s very empowering to be plant-based.

Dr. Ornish: “I don’t want to give people the false sense that if they eat a plant-based diet then they can go out and be exposed to the coronavirus and their immune system will protect them. That would be foolish. But no matter how hard we try to avoid the virus, invariably there are times where we may get exposed unwillingly, and how our bodies interact with that is something that we do have more control over than we once thought.”

EA: What kind of work are you doing in relation to a plant-based diet and Alzheimer's disease?”

Dr. Ornish: “We’re doing the first randomized trial to see whether these same lifestyle changes that can reverse heart disease and diabetes and prostate cancer may also reverse Alzheimer’s.

"I have a new book I wrote with my wife, Ann, called Undo It, which is putting forth this radical unifying theory that these are really all the same disease masquerading and manifesting in different forms because they all share the same underlying biological mechanisms (as I explained above, but are worth mentioning again). Things like chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, changes in the microbiome and telemeters, and gene expression, and each one of these mechanisms is directly influenced by what we eat, how we respond to stress, how much exercise we get, and how much love and support (we have).

"So, eat well, move more, stress less, and love more. “We’re halfway through this Alzheimer’s study, and I’m hoping that we may be able to show that we can stop or reverse the progression of Alzheimer’s because there are really the same mechanisms that affect Alzheimer’s that affect these other conditions.”

EA: And we have control over it is what you’re saying, at least some of it?

Dr. Ornish: "We hope so. You know, our genes are a predisposition, but our genes are not always our fate and we did a study where we found that over 500 genes were changed in only three months (when making lifestyle changes). Turning on the good genes (with these lifestyle changes) that keep us healthy and turning off the ones that cause us to get sick. And, since there are no good drugs that are highly effective for treating Alzheimer’s, if we can show we can reverse it, then we can prevent it.  Stay tuned, we don’t know yet what we’ll find, but we’re hoping that we find something that will be exciting for people.”

We love you, Dr. O! Thanks for keeping us healthy, strong, and wise now and in the future. So, go forth and 1) eat plant-based, 2) reduce your stress, 3) get in that exercise and 4) get your love groove on!  C’mon – what could be easier? We got this!

For the full interview, click here. Elysabeth Alfano is the host of the Awesome Vegans Influencer Series, and a plant-based expert, breaking down plant-based health, food, business, and environmental news for the general public on radio and TV.

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